The Dastaan Project uses digital experiences to create a virtual home return for survivors of the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Ishar Das Arora, 81, always dreamed of returning to Bela, a small town in Punjab province, in present-day Pakistan, where he was born. Das was only seven years old when the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 forced him to leave his ancestral home and emigrate to India.
For more than 70 years, he longed to see the lanes of his childhood village again, but a hostile political environment and a harsh visa regime between the two countries meant that there was no return to their roots.
His dream was finally realized through the Dastaan Project, an initiative that aims to give an emotional closure to people who were forced to leave during the bloody events of the partition, connecting them to their homes and children’s communities through digital experiences.
The partition of the subcontinent, which led to the formation of India and Pakistan as nation-states, was the largest forced migration in human history, with approximately 15 million people leaving their homes and more than a million lost their lives.
Since then, the partition continues to haunt the population of both countries. The rest of the survivors do not see the possibility of returning home, but the Dastaan Project aims to make this return possible through virtual reality (VR).
“This project is about giving a closure (to the survivors),” says Sparsh Ahuja, 24, Das ’grandson and also founder of the project.
Ahuja’s two grandparents emigrated from Pakistan to India in 1947, so the stories about the trauma partition they left behind always appear in the family conversations at the dinner table, which eventually turned out to be the engine of the Project Dastaan.
“This longing that my grandparents had to reconnect with their roots, inspired me to start this (project). It is also an attempt to reconnect with my own roots,” adds Ahuja, who along with the his Pakistani partner Ameena Malak started the profit company in 2018.
The project was conceptualized when Ahuja and Malak exchanged their grandparents’ partition stories and realized that their grandparents had traveled almost “identical journeys in opposite directions.” They felt the need to return them to their ancestral villages on opposite sides of the border, but hostile political relations between India and Pakistan, not to mention the old age of their grandparents, made it almost impossible to return.
Soon his friends Sam Dalrymple, a Sanskrit and Persian academic from Oxford University, and Saadia Gardezi, a Pakistani journalist, joined them and Project Dastaan took off.
“Immersive experience” for survivors
The project uses volunteers in India and Pakistan to track specific locations and then film and edit them in digital experiences that are shown to survivors through virtual reality. The goal is to “immortalize the experiences of partition generation” and shut down different generations.
“We record the stories of survivors and then go back to fieldwork in India and Pakistan. We find their villages and film the locations there using 360-degree cameras with a GoPro. We then cure these experiences by doing an experiment. 360-degree RV through glasses or virtual reality glasses “, explains Gardezi, co-founder of the project.
These digital experiences allow survivors to relive the environment and environment they associated with their ancestral sites.
“Sometimes there’s only an old well left, and sometimes you still have those old mosques, mandirs and gurudwares completely intact, and sometimes the whole neighborhood. We’ve even found people several times who remember our partition witnesses,” Gardezi adds.
Gardezi’s involvement in the ambitious digital project is inspired in itself by a personal connection. He grew up listening to the stories of the Lahore refugee camps, where his grandmother used to volunteer.
“So I have these very strong childhood memories that he told me about those times. And when you know the sacrifices of this generation, you want to do something for them.”
In addition to providing immersive virtual experiences to the survivors of the partition, Project Dastaan has also created an interactive and animated virtual reality documentary experience called “Child of the Empire,” which he puts on the skin of a migrant in 1947. and navigates “sectarianism, colonialism, and identity” at a time of outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence.
One of the fascinating things the project has been able to do for some people, says Gardezi, is to close the loop of memories and nostalgia that the generation of survivors had for their local homes.
“I think we’ve definitely been able to close emotionally especially when we reconnect people to places not just with other people who have lost,” he says.
The bloody demarcation of borders in 1947 and the eventual migration of millions of people has influenced in many respects the socio-political landscape of India and Pakistan, the marks of which are still evident today.
But in the debates surrounding it, which often take place in political corridors, the personal experience of millions who crossed the border into their new homes has been largely ignored.
“The project touches on personal stories. Our efforts definitely offer this closure to people, but the goal is also not to traumatize again,” says Dalrymple.
“Some people have bitter memories and don’t want to go back to those times. But sometimes we have second- or third-generation migrants asking us for a virtual reality return for their grandparents,” he adds.
Now, as the global pandemic has restricted physical mobility and very little research and ground work is possible, project members say they find it extremely difficult to help all survivors.
“We have so many requests from people to try to find their home, that we just don’t have the resources to track and find all of these locations and create so many virtual reality experiences,” Gardezi said.
“So what we’re doing right now is trying to get as many as we can.”
Source: TRT World